About the Center

Yale School of the Environment’s  Center for Industrial Ecology was established in September 1998 to provide an organizational focus for research in industrial ecology.

The Center brings together Yale staff, students, visiting scholars, and practitioners to develop new knowledge at the forefront of the field. Research is carried out in collaboration with other segments of the Yale community, other academic institutions, and international partners.

Industrial ecology is a field with a short history, ambitious aspirations, diverse components, notable accomplishments and a promising future.  A variety of definitions of industrial ecology have been advanced including that of Robert White, president of the US National Academy of Engineering (White 1994):

Industrial ecology is the study of the flows of materials and energy in industrial and consumer activities, of the effects of these flows on the environment, and of the influences of economic, political, regulatory, and social factors on the flow, use, and transformation of resources.

The name industrial ecology conveys some of the content of the field. Industrial ecology is industrial in that it views firms as agents for environmental improvement because they possess the technological expertise that is critical to the successful execution of environmentally-informed design of products and processes. Industrial ecology is ecological in at least two senses. Industrial ecology looks to non-human “natural” ecosystems as potential models for industrial activity. This is what some researchers have dubbed the “biological analogy”(Graedel 1996). Many biological ecosystems are especially effective at recycling resources and thus are held out as exemplars for efficient cycling of materials and energy in industry and society. Industrial ecology also borrowed biological concepts related to the idea of metabolism. Second, industrial ecology places human technological activity—industry in the widest sense—in the context of the larger ecosystems that support it, examining the sources of resources used in society and the sinks that may act to absorb or detoxify wastes. This latter sense of “ecological” links industrial ecology to questions of carrying capacity and ecological resilience. The field has a strong anchor in engineering, but includes substantial elements of environmental science, environmental and ecological economics, and management.


Industrial ecologists typically date the beginning of the field to the 1989 article in Scientific American by Frosch and Gallopoulos which advanced the biological analogy and argued for a systems approach to environmental analysis, management, and policy.  Yet, the intellectual antecedents include an important article in the American Economic Review (Ayres and Kneese 1969) which outlined approaches to integrating physical limits—specifically material balances—into economic analysis as well as research including Belgian and Japanese scholarship dating back to the 1970s along with elements of sociology (Erkman 2004; Fischer-Kowalski 1998; Fischer-Kowalski and Hüttler 1998).  The field incorporated research from several developing literatures including life cycle assessment (LCA), cleaner production, industrial metabolism and corporate social responsibility.  A 1992 National Academy of Science Colloquium brought together scholars and led to an important set of papers outlining the key elements and research goals of the field. Recognition of an industrial district in Kalundborg, Denmark where facilities share resources and exchange by-products led to a body of research on “industrial symbiosis” providing an exemplar for the biological analogy (Chertow 2000). In institutional terms, the US National Academy of Engineering and members of AT&T Bell Labs through the AT&T Foundation played key roles supporting the coalescence of the field. 

The appointment of Thomas Graedel at Yale in 1997 established, as best as can be ascertained, the first professor of industrial ecology. The Journal of Industrial Ecology was founded in the same year and the first Gordon Research Conference on Industrial Ecology was held the following year.  In 2001 the International Society for Industrial Ecology was established and the first international conference was held at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Elements of Industrial Ecology

The hallmarks of industrial ecology are a cluster of concepts and tools:

The biological analogy

Life cycle assessment

Product-oriented environmental management and policy

Material and energy flow analysis (MEFA, also called socio-economic metabolism)

Industrial symbiosis


Dematerialization and decarbonization

Uniting these elements are attention to the flow of materials and energy at multiple scales—unit processes, products, supply chains and product life cycles, facilities and groups of facilities, firms, cities, regions, and the globe.  Through approaches such as life cycle analysis, design and management, and rigorous materials accounting, industrial ecology also pursues its comprehensive systems perspective (Lifset and Graedel 2002).

In the early days of industrial ecology, investigation of the soundness and utility of the biological analogy and efforts at eco-design were prominent.  In the last decade, input-output analysis (especially multi-regional IOA), studies of resource criticality, integration of social science and operations research, agent-based/complexity modeling, urban metabolism and long term socio-ecological research have become central to the field. 

Accomplishments and Prospects

The influence of industrial ecology is significant and growing, and the analytical tools that are central to industrial ecology, such as life cycle assessment and material flow analysis, are increasingly used in other disciplines.  Both LCA and MEFA are used in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report to examine the embodied greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, transportation, and other sectors. Additionally, industrial ecology specialists comprise the core of UNEP’s International Resource Panel, and have authored five of the Panel’s seven reports since 2011.  Recent publications in Science (Reck and Graedel 2012), Nature (Lenzen et al. 2012)  and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Wiedmann et al. 2013) signal the coming of age of the field.  From a policy perspective, Japan, China, and the European Union all have laws or polices related to such topics as material flow analysis reporting, the circular economy, and a sound material society.


Ayres, R. U. and A. V. Kneese. 1969. Production, Consumption & Externalities. American Economic Review 59(3): 282-296.

Chertow, M. R. 2000. Industrial Symbiosis: Literature and Taxonomy. Annu. Rev. Energy Environ. 25(1): 313-337.

Erkman, S. 2004. Vers une Ecologie industrielle. Paris: Editions Charles Leopold Mayer. 

Fischer-Kowalski, M. 1998. Society’s metabolism: The intellectual history of materials flow analysis, part I: 1860-1970. Journal of Industrial Ecology 2(1): 61-78.

Fischer-Kowalski, M. and W. Hüttler. 1998. Society’s metabolism: The intellectual history of materials flow analysis, part II: 1970-1998. Journal of Industrial Ecology 2(4): 107-136.

Graedel, T. E. 1996. On theconcept of industrial ecology. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 21(1): 69-98.

Lenzen, M., D. Moran, K. Kanemoto, B. Foran, L. Lobefaro, and A. Geschke. 2012. International trade drives biodiversity threats in developing nations. Nature 486(7401): 109-112.

Lifset, R. and T. E. Graedel. 2002. Industrial Ecology: Goals and Definitions. In Handbook of Industrial Ecology, edited by R. Ayres and L. Ayres. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Reck, B. K. and T. E. Graedel. 2012. Challenges in metal recycling. Science 337(6095): 690-695.

White, R. 1994. Preface. In The Greening of Industrial Ecosytems, edited by B. R. Allenby and R. J. Deanna. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Wiedmann, T. O., H. Schandl, M. Lenzen, D. Moran, S. Suh, J. West, and K. Kanemoto. 2013. The material footprint of nations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The International Society for Industrial Ecology is an interdisciplinary forum of natural and social scientists, engineers, policymakers and practitioners that advances systems-based analysis methods, tools and solutions in pursuit of sustainable technology, product and service systems, and economies.